Netflix’s Saqqara Tomb doc enthralls

A new documentary uncovers some of the discoveries made in the Wahtye Tomb in Saqqara Egypt.

Documentaries about the new and unexplored always bother me because I can never stop thinking about the silent, invisible, yet inescapable presence of the filming crew. 

I have a tendency to look at the plausibility of every shot, questioning what is authentic and what is illusion for the sake of storytelling. 

If a man is the first person to descend into a newly discovered tomb for the first time in a thousand years, for instance, then how did they get a shot of him doing it from the inside of the tomb itself? 

When preoccupied with questions such as these, I usually forget to focus on the documentary itself and sometimes even get a bit annoyed at any perceived deception. 

I did not often have this issue with Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, however, because the earnestness and genuineness of the subjects involved and the masterful work of the crew fully sell the importance of the exciting new discoveries and make you feel like you are in Egypt with them instead of merely watching a film about their efforts.  

Any time a discovery like this is made it is exciting for us as a species, but the experience is all the more poignant when the discovery is made by the descendants of the people in question. The tomb of Wahtye was found, unearthed, and explored by our subjects, a handful of archaeologists, scientists, and excavators from Egypt in 2018, and their excitement and reverence for the site, as well as their disappointment when something breaks or an expected discovery fails to surface, is almost palpable. 

The tomb (which is located in the titular Saqqara necropolis just 19 miles south of Cairo) and its story are uncovered piece by piece in the documentary, often making me feel like I was watching a very slow-paced murder mystery, albeit one that doesn’t have the answer to every question and has a whole lot of archeology thrown in. 

You also don’t need any previous knowledge of Egypt to appreciate Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, as most of the relevant basics such as the mummification process and Egyptian afterlife beliefs get adequately covered as the need arises (accompanied by cute, simple, yet efficient animations of hieroglyphs come to life). 

These discoveries and cultural lessons are spread out evenly enough that I never got bored despite the slow pace that is intrinsic to this type of film. Another factor that makes the two hours fly by is the fact that the documentary requires your full and undivided attention for one simple reason: most of it is, naturally, in Arabic. It is impressive how many of the people involved speak English, but when the rest are speaking (or if it’s not a staged talking head), prepare to read a whole lot of subtitles.  

Many mysteries remain at the site, and I’ll be interested to read up on further discoveries as they develop. But for now, my Egyptian archelogy itch is satisfied. And for once I’m not even wondering where the cameraman is hiding.  

 Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is now available on Netflix.